The New York Times’ Nick Bilton just hit the publishing lottery. His new book, “Hatching Twitter,” about the origins of the microblogging platform, came out on Tuesday – just two days before the social network is slated to go public.
Bilton spoke with Digiday about his book and the dramatic origins of Twitter’s 140-character revolution. Excerpts:
What was the most fascinating thing you learned in your reporting?
Just how much drama had occurred at the company in the early days. There’s drama at every company in the Valley. You have infighting. You have people who argue over money. But with Twitter, it wasn’t over the money. It was over the power and influence over what this thing was. Noah Glass was pushed out, then Jack Dorsey, then Evan Williams; Biz Stone left without much of a choice to leave. The thing I didn’t anticipate going into it was that without all that chaos, without all that infighting between all these founders, this company wouldn’t exist in the way it does today.
There’s an irony here: A service designed to bring people together kind of tore its founders apart.
That’s a huge irony in the book. We have this generation of people in the Valley, these entrepreneurs and tech founders that try to build things that will make them rich and successful and famous — and some end up doing that, and many don’t. Often these are people that are much more comfortable with computers and technology than they are with humans.
Why do you think it is that founders of social networks can be so anti-social?
It’s an amazing question; I actually don’t know the answer to that. You have this generation of kids who’ve grown up and gone to school and not necessarily very socially adept. And while certainly famous after their social network or whatever it is becomes successful, they are still stuck in that world in having that difficulty in communicating with people on a day-to-day basis.
Do you think it’s important or relevant to the success of Twitter that each of them had these hardscrabble upbringings?
Absolutely. They are people who grew up not in big houses in Connecticut or in million-dollar mansions in Manhattan. Ev grew up on a farm with 362 people in his town; Jack grew up in a blue-collar house in St. Louis; Biz grew up on, what he says, was ‘welfare cheese.’ Noah’s father left when he was a kid. These people went through a thing, and all these kinds of experiences as a kid really gives you an understanding of what it’s like to be a normal human being out there. And that helped in many ways.
How can Twitter justify this lofty valuation?
I think Twitter is undervalued right now. Twitter’s going to make $600 million in revenue in this year, $1 billion or more next year. And I think when you look at that, and based on the growth curve, it’s actually worth more. But Twitter’s going public with the knowledge of what Facebook went through. But in the same sentence, Pinterest is now worth $3.8 billion with zero dollars in revenue. Snapchat is supposed to be valued at $3.6 billion with zero dollars in revenue. Fab is valued at $1 billion, and it’s not profitable. These valuations are incredibly lofty, but in Twitter’s case, I don’t think that’s actually the case.
Have you heard from any of the founders since the book was written?
I’ve heard from a couple. I can’t really say who or what because those conversations are private. But the people I have heard from have been delightfully surprised. And what that says is that credit has not been given to all the people who were involved in building this company. It’s not just the founders but the other people in the room.
How do you counter critics who claim Twitter is shallow, irresponsible or narcissistic at its core?
For certain people, it is that. For a lot more people, it’s not. Ev and Biz wanted to make it about what was happening, not what people were doing. Those sound similar, but there’s a very distinct difference between that. Jack’s idea was, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ Ev’s idea: ‘I want to know what’s happening around me.’ Those two different viewpoints are what makes Twitter Twitter. If it was just the one, it never would have worked. Put them together, you have the perfect experience. And then when you fold in Noah’s storyand his idea of what it was, which was to connect to people, then I think it changes yet again.
What does CEO Dick Costolo bring to Twitter that’s different than the founders?
He brought in people that were going to help run this company like a company. If he was there in the beginning, he wouldn’t have had a role. He’s not the kind of guy who would have let the chaos happen in the way it did.
What’s the most interesting Twitter account you follow?
Commander Hatfield, the astronaut in the space station. If I can only follow one account, it’d be his. He took these unbelievable photos of Earth and of space and tweeted them. I checked them every night before bed because it was just beautiful to see something that you couldn’t see in real life.
What’s your favorite tweet – either yours or someone else’s?
My favorites are the conversations — Mike Tyson having a conversation with Evander Holyfield. Or the brilliant conversation between Donald Trump and Deadspin. Trump tweeted at them, “Congratulations to Tom Scocca and Timothy Burke of @Deadspin for exposing the Manti Te’o fiasco.” Deadspin replied, “Go fuck yourself.” That summed up this different world we live in, as far as media goes where you have this empire on one side and one on the other and different views.